When one pictures a farmhouse in rural Illinois, the mind seems to wander to a certain sort of house.
Simple. Frame construction. Gently peeling white paint. Large porch. A plain structure that seems to emerge almost organically under the vast sky and next to the cascading fields of grain that define landscapes in much of the state.
Near the McLean County town of Towanda, however, sits a farmhouse that is exactly none of those things.
It’s builder/designer came from Clark County, Kentucky in 1863 to start over. William Duncan, a successful livestock breeder, had lost everything for being a Union supporter in a decidedly Confederate corner of the Bluegrass State. Duncan purchased 300 acres near Towanda in 1865 and made plans for the spectacular, if incongruous, mansion that he would have built.
Done in the Italianate style, this house is an imposing, three-story presence on the prairie. It is said that Duncan wanted passengers from Chicago to Springfield on the Chicago & Alton Railroad to notice his grand residence from the train.
Given the size (and the fact that it was right next to the tracks), this was surely what happened. Duncan even built a stockyard on the property and often entertained traveling businessmen, livestock dealers, and others wanting to trade in his prized short-horned cattle.
Duncan wasn’t around long to enjoy his “farmhouse.” He died in 1876, having lived in the house for less than ten years.
The house passed through many hands and is now owned privately and used for events. The owners surely make Duncan’s residence lively once again.
In the end, Duncan’s “farmhouse” really isn’t anything of the sort. It is a house in a rural area. That’s where the similarities stop. It is much more like a manor house, perched in a prominent location, overlooking the surrounding countryside.
Farmhouses were built for the practical and difficult lives of those who worked the land. The Duncan House was built for show and impact, a palatial residence that seems to take great pride in towering over and standing apart from its landscape.
It sticks out like a sore thumb because it’s supposed to. What’s more, William Duncan would surely be pleased with that.
Drury, John. Old Illinois Houses. Springfield: Illinois State Historical Society, 1948.
“The History,” Duncan Manor (website), http://www.wrduncanmanor.com/about/